Mohammed Wardi: The Nile Loses its “Joy”

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Sudanese musical icon Mohammed Wardi during a ceremony held to honour him in Khartoum on 23 March 2008. Sudan mourned on 19 February 2012 the death of Wardi, a former prisoner who spent years in self-imposed exile but who died on home soil after seeing his beloved nation divided. (Photo: AFP - Ebrahim Hamid)

By: Sayyid Mahmoud

Published Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Cairo – Mohammed Wardi received several nicknames throughout his career. “Africa’s Pharaoh” was at the same time the “Leftist Artist.” The man who throughout his entire life regarded himself as a crowned king of Sudanese song often focused on those less fortunate than himself in his work. “The Voice of Joy” passed away Saturday in Khartoum at the age of 79.

The exceptionally talented Wardi turned singing into a medium for seeking justice and beauty. He did not view the “leftist artist” nickname as a demagogic slogan but thought of it as a responsibility. The choices he made in his life and career seemed to revolve around living up to that title. One of these choices was his decision to become a Communist Party member alongside Sudanese Communist heavyweight Muhammad Ibrahim Naqd.

Wardi began his life as a music teacher at Sudanese schools in the 50s. He was then involved in a union struggle to defend teachers’ rights before joining the radio as a first class singer and composer.

It is hard to separate between his political beliefs and artistic choices. He built the latter on fine lyrics that succeeded in offering an “alternative song” to counter Sudanese pop songs of the era.

Wardi’s rise to success was in a big part owed to the work he did with two distinguished poets and songwriters, Ismail Hassan and Mahjoub Sharif. It was then that he went beyond the pentatonic musical scale that was prevalent in Sudan’s music to open up new horizons for Sudanese music.

There was also Wardi’s love for Egyptian music, which he used to add an oriental flavor to his works. Soon thereafter, he introduced Nubian tunes and instruments, such as mandolins, into Sudanese music.

Wardi’s political and artistic commitment was tested in a country that suffered several political coups. He supported General Ibrahim Abboud’s coup in 1958. However, he then celebrated its downfall in the 1964 “October revolution.”

Following Jaafar al-Numairi’s coup in 1969, Wardi sang odes in support of the new regime, when it still had socialist orientations, only to perform other songs calling for the fall of al-Numairi’s regime in April 1985 revolution.

Wardi left Sudan in 1989 following the rise of Sudanese President Omar Bashir to power. He spent 13 years in voluntary exile mostly in Cairo, where he was famous before his arrival.

It is noteworthy that popular Egyptian singer Mohamed Mounir covered two songs by Wardi: Wasat al-Dayra (In the Middle of the Circle) (1987) and Qalbi Masaken Shaabiyya (My Heart is a Housing Project) (2000). Mounir’s unique style did not overshadow Wardi’s performance. The latter used his trademark vocal beauty that instantly created an intimate connection that would over overwhelm his audience.

Wardi left behind a reservoir of songs that have become part of the Sudanese daily life. Wardi died, but his fans all along the Nile will continue to sing his songs for years to come.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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